The Year in Michigan Sports, John U. Bacon looks back

Dec 20, 2013

The year in sports started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money.  And, of course, both sides were dead right.

On one side, you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, a small, whiny person considered the worst commissioner in sports.  On the players’ side, you had union chief  Donald Fehr, a self-righteous, humorless man, who led the baseball players union to cancel the 1994 World Series.  This set up a game of chicken between two self-destructive morons. 

Fortunately, a government mediator saved the day.  But it all goes to prove my theory: hockey is the greatest sport, run by the dumbest people

Things picked up.

Ann Arbor’s own Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, coached their NFL teams into the Super Bowl. Younger brother Jim had been a star quarterback at Michigan, then the NFL.  But on this day, John -- the older, quieter, less celebrated brother – was the star, with his Baltimore Ravens holding off Jim’s San Francisco 49ers, 34-31.

Michigan basketball coach John Beilein, the eighth of nine kids, started his career when he literally climbed out of a sanitation sewer to teach high school social studies. Four decades and eight teams later, the 60-year old coach led his Wolverines to the NCAA Final Four.  After Michigan fired its last four basketball coaches, three in the wake of scandals, they finally got the right guy.  He just took a little while to get there. 

Jim Leyland’s Detroit Tigers won the division title for the fourth time in eight years, then he retired.  He had plenty of critics, but his teams always won, everywhere he coached.  Leyland must have done something computers can’t.  I’m glad that still matters.

The NCAA decided to reduce the sanctions against Penn State’s players, who didn’t know who Jerry Sandusky was until he was arrested.  The same month, Grambling’s players boycotted a mid-season game.  College players have no power, until they sit down. Then they have all the power.

The Michigan football team’s dreams of a division title ended with five league losses.  The Wolverines best game was a one-point loss to hated Ohio State, the first time I have ever seen Michigan fans feeling better about their team after a loss than before it. 

While the Wolverines were stumbling, up the road Michigan State quietly won the division to face those same Buckeyes, leaving Wolverine fans to wish for the lights to go out, a la the Super Bowl.  No luck.  The Spartans beat the Buckeyes 34-24, to win their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 25 years.

In the 80th annual Mudbowl, played in a mucky swamp in front of Michigan’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, an estimated 2,000 fans showed up to watch.  But it’s hard to say, because the Mudbowl doesn’t have turnstiles, ticket scanners or seat licenses – or TV timeouts, for that matter.  It was cold, it was chaotic, it was crazy, but the pure energy pulled the crowd in, just as it surely did when students played the first game in 1869.

The players weren’t battling for money or fame, just pride.  They showed all of us why football had caught on in the first place.  It was a nice reminder.